Before deciding upon About a Boy for this week’s Mindblowers, I valiantly attempted to listen to Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn’s commentary track on Wedding Singers and found both actors to be painfully dull and immodest. All they talked about was how much of Wedding Crashers they ad-libbed or bitched about how long it took to film certain scenes, failing to give much due to their director or the screenwriter for the success of that movie. By contrast, Paul and Chris Weitz were gracious and self-deprecating in their commentary track on About a Boy; in nearly every scene, they managed to give credit to their editor, their production designer, the costume designer, Nick Hornby’s source material, the performances in the film, and the many other voices that provided ideas and inspiration for the project. Moreover, the commentary track in About a Boy is not only refreshing, it’s a nice primer in film studies. I came away from the experience more enamored with the film and surprisingly impressed with the Weitz Brothers’ breadth of knowledge. That is to say, short of the kind of commentary dripping with salacious gossip, you could not ask for much more than what the About a Boy commentary track provides.
You would never know it based on the films they’ve directed, which include American Pie together, and Twilight: New Moon, American Dreamz and In Good Company separately, but the Weitz brothers may be two of the smartest people in Hollywood. Paul Weitz has a degree from Wesleyan University and Chris has an English Literature degree from Trinity College in Cambridge. Their level of intelligence is evident from the director’s commentary track. They managed to display that brilliance without coming off pretentious. After listening to their commentary, I’m at a loss to explain the majority of their filmography; in my opinion, they take a lot of projects that are far beneath them.
They’re not only very literate, Paul and Chris Weitz are very knowledgeable of film, especially of the way films are shot. You wouldn’t know it unless it was pointed out to you, yet it’s obvious once its highlighted in About a Boy that many of the shots are nods to other the work of other directors: There are long shots inspired by Mike Leigh and The Graduate; a staircase scene that sublty pays homage to Noseferatu; a nod to Sergio Leone; a scene that recalls a T.S. Elliot poem, and a diner scene that closely resembles the work of Godard.
Chris Weitz is also a graduate of Cambridge University, where he was a classmate of Rachel Weisz, who plays Rachel in About a Boy.
Both Nick Hornby — who wrote the novel, About a Boy — and Hugh Grant had major reservations about the American Pie directors making the movie until they met the Weitz brothers and realized how “learned, erudite, and intelligent” they are.
For About a Boy, Paul and Chris Weitz attempted to channel the vibe of Billy Wilder and the way he mixed cynicism and hope.
The directors emulate François Truffaut’s 400 Blows in the unsentimental depiction of Marcus in About a Boy. In fact, the last shot of About a Boy is a direct homage to 400 Blows.
The dual voice over employed in About a Boy was based on Martin Scorcese’s Casino, as was a certain rack shot in the film, which recalled the rack shot in Casino in which Pesci’s crew was introduced. Another shot in About a Boy emulated one from Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead. That’s some serious devotion to Scorsese.
The Weitz brothers settled on the dual voice over after concluding that the method employed in High Fidelity — where Cusack often spoke to the camera — wouldn’t work well in About a Boy. Nevertheless, both directors felt insecure about the amount of voice over used in the movie. However, it was not used to advance the plot or provide exposition — as it is in many lazier movies that employ the device — rather, it was used as a means to fit in as much of Nick Hornby’s language into the movie as possible.
The genesis for the book came from an idea by Hornby about a childless cad who joins a single parent group to pick up women.
The Weitz Brothers listened to Badly Drawn Boy’s first album while they were writing the screenplay and felt their music fit the tone of the About a Boy, which is why they asked Badly Drawn Boy to score the film.
The Weitz Brothers originally offered the role of Will to Brad Pitt, who declined the role, reasoning that — because he was so good looking — it wouldn’t have been believable that he had to resort to scamming for women at support meetings for single parents.
Emma Thompson was originally offered the role of Fiona, which eventually went to Toni Collette. Ultimately, she was the right choice, as she was able to create sympathy for what was an otherwise unlikable character.
There was a gag in the film, in which Toni Collette’s character is eating a chocolate penis, but it was deleted because it seemed too much like a scene that belonged in American Pie.
Will’s (Hugh Grant) apartment was built inside a sound studio, and made to look like something one would see in a magazine to reflect Will’s empty materialistic life at the film’s outset.
Hugh Grant’s discomfort around children was not acting, according to the Weitz Brothers. “He’s actually uncomfortable around children. In fact, Hugh is uncomfortable around everyone.” Also, according to the Weitz Brothers, Hugh Grant is a great “face actor,” and the “master of the facial shrug.”
There is a scene near the end of the film where Toni Collette says to Hugh Grant that she’s not attracted to him, which the Weitz brothers were keen to add because “we’re so used to seeing romantic comedies where the two most unlikely people of course end up together and we were sort of afraid that people were so conditioned to this that there’d be a zombie revolt against the concept that these two people would not end up together” if they had not laid the groundwork.
Most of the last third of the movie is an invention of Weitz.
The Weitz Brothers decided upon “Killing Me Softly” as the song that Marcus would sing at the end of the film because it was both easy to mock — because it’s so earnest — and yet remarkably affecting.
The Weitz Brothers recalled that New Yorker critic David Denby called the “Killing Me Softly” scene “horrible.” I double checked that; in fact, Denby called it “awful.” However, Denby did give credit to the directors for trying very hard not to make a tearjerker despite material that could’ve easily lent itself to that kind of film. Despite Denby’s mixed review, however, About a Boy was rated favorably by 93 percent of critics on Rotten Tomatoes. It also made $130 million worldwide at the box office on only a $27 million budget.
Not for nothing, but About a Boy is one of Stephenie Meyers’ favorite films and it may have played a role in the selection of Chris Weitz to direct New Moon.